The health benefits of practicing yoga seem endless: Certain poses ease depression and anxiety; lower levels of stress; even reduce risk for heart disease. Now, new research presented during this year’s annual meeting for the American Pain Society in Palm Springs, Fla., suggests yoga can reverse the effects chronic pain has on the brain, too.

Cognitive impairment has long been associated with chronic pain. Dr. M. Catherine Bushnell, the scientific director of intramural research at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), pointed to prior studies conducted on both rats and humans during her presentation. These results show chronic pain reduces the brain’s “gray matter volume and white matter integrity.”

“Studies of people with depression show they also have reduced gray matter, and this could contribute to the gray matter changes in pain patients who are depressed,” Bushnell added. “Our research shows that gray matter loss is directly related to the pain when we take depression into account.”

For yogis, however, there seem to be more gray matter in multiple brain regions, including those responsible for pain modulation. Modulation refers to how the brain interprets and perceives pain. The more yogis practiced this mind-body technique, the more gray matter they had.

Gray matter is one of the two types of tissue that make up the central nervous system; the other type is white matter. Gray matter contains numerous cells, and matter’s size has been shown to correlate with pain tolerance. When the size is reduced, individuals may experience memory impairment, emotional problems, and a decrease in cognitive function.

Bushnell explained an increase in gray matter in yogis suggests “there is a causative link between yoga and gray matter increases.” To put it another way, practicing yoga appears to have the opposite effect of chronic pain when it comes to the brain.

"Brain anatomy changes may contribute to mood disorders and other affective and cognitive comorbidities of chronic pain," she concluded. "The encouraging news for people with chronic pain is mind-body practices seem to exert a protective effect on brain gray matter that counteracts the neuroanatomical effects of chronic pain."

For additional medical conditions yoga can treat, click here.

Source: Bushnell, MC.Yoga and chronic pain have opposite effects on brain gray matter. American Pain Society Annual Meeting. 2015.